David Cowling

title.none: Kendall, The Allegory of the Church (Cowling)

identifier.other: baj9928.9912.002 99.12.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David Cowling , Exeter University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Kendall, Calvin. The Allegory of the Church: Romanesque Portals and their Verse Inscriptions. Toronto: Uni versity of Toronto Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 401. $75.00. ISBN: 0-802-04262-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.12.02

Kendall, Calvin. The Allegory of the Church: Romanesque Portals and their Verse Inscriptions. Toronto: Uni versity of Toronto Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 401. $75.00. ISBN: 0-802-04262-7.

Reviewed by:

David Cowling
Exeter University

Professor Kendall's most illuminating study takes as its starting-point an axiom of art history: "Portal inscriptions in leonine verse are prima facie indicators of the Romanesque; their absence is Gothic." (p. 195) In this work, which is evidently the product of decades of painstaking research and extensive travel throughout western Europe, Kendall gives a compelling and richly documented account of Romanesque portals to accompany an analytical catalogue of inscriptions. The study provides both a rationale for the importance of portals and their inscriptions in the Romanesque period, based on Bedan multi-level biblical exegesis, and a discussion of the reasons why Gothic builders tended to neglect them. Consideration is also given to the growing claims for attention, incorporated into the portal, on the part of both the ecclesiastics who commissioned the work of sculptors and the sculptors themselves. Kendall thus sheds an interesting sidelight on the history of artistic self-consciousness in the Middle Ages.

The book is divided into four parts in addition to the catalogue of verse inscriptions, which constitutes the second half of the volume. In the first part, "The Making of Meaning", Kendall takes as his starting-point the multi-level allegory of the church building, seen as analogous to contemporary biblical exegesis. Instead of giving an exhaustive list of the parts of the edifice and the allegorical meanings attached to them in the period, as did Sauer (Joseph Sauer, Symbolik des Kirchengebaeudes und seiner Ausstattung in der Auffassung des Mittelalters mit Beruecksichtigung von Honorius Augustodunensis, Sicardus und Durandus. 2nd edn. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1924; it is perhaps a little surprising that this work is not mentioned in the bibliography), Kendall concentrates on the portal, "identified with, or as, Christ". (p. 3) This formulation of course conveys the divergent possibilities for interpretation offered by such an allegory; the portal was either sign or symbol, Christ's presence either real or merely figured. In addition to this semantic potentiality, the portal obviously constituted an important liminal space, the boundary between the secular and the sacred, and thus, according to Kendall, offered the possibility of a spiritual transformation engineered by the combined iconographical and textual impact of the portal on the believer. The importance of the inscriptions, then, in addition to their considerable philological interest, lies in their witness to contemporary interpretation(s) of allegorical matter.

Kendall's exposition of Bede's version of the four-fold exegetical model is lucid and helpful, concentrating (as did Bede) on the levels of meaning attaching to the "templum Domini" and the city of Jerusalem, while at the same time prudently conceding that this somewhat maximalist version was not necessarily present in the minds of patrons and artists. He then goes on to discuss the different levels of meaning in more detail. On the literal level, the church was "a material structure in the unredeemed world" (p. 14), often associated with the temple of Solomon; typologically, it signified the body of Christ (later the Virgin Mary). This somatic symbolism is interesting insofar as it makes clear the extent to which significant elements of Christianity, such as the church building, were subject to almost obsessive semantic overdetermination, permitting the coexistence of divergent, even incompatible interpretations: "The allegory of the church as the body of Christ carried an overlay of masculine symbolism, whereas the allegory of the church as ecclesia--the Bride of Christ--entailed female symbolism. To enter was in a physical sense a kind of incorporation into Christ and the Church." (pp. 15-16) Kendall sees in the "grossly obscene sexual imagery both male and female" that often adorns ecclesiastical structures of the period (e.g. Santiago of Compostela) a kind of parody of spiritual transformation. Does it not rather point up the potentially erotic symbolism of entry into a building associated with the female body, which was later to find such eloquent expression (complete with the trappings of pilgrimage) at the end of Jean de Meung's Roman de la Rose? (I have dealt with this and related questions in my book Building the Text: Architecture as Metaphor in Late Medieval and Early Modern France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998; reference to the work of Michael Camille, especially his Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion, 1992), might also have been helpful in this context.) Tropologically, the church was either the individual soul, inhabited by the Holy Spirit (in the Prudentian tradition, which was also to enjoy popularity in late medieval French vernacular writing), or the community of the faithful; anagogically (and perhaps most importantly to the medieval worshipper or pilgrim), it symbolized the heavenly Jerusalem and thus held out the possibility of eternal life to those entering it.

In Part 2, "The Early History of Christian Verse Inscriptions", Kendall traces the putative origins of the tympanum and its accompanying verses through a consideration of the transition between later Roman triumphal forms with their profusion of hexameters (the Arch of Constantine) and early Christian architecture. If, as Kendall convincingly argues, an apsidal semidome with its concave interior surface decorated with mosaics, such as that found in Old Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, is projected onto a flat plane, a tympanum such as those commonly found above Romanesque portals results. Precedents for the inscriptions that figure in or near the tympanum can be found both in apse mosaics and the tituli that were inscribed above the doors of the buildings of abbeys such as Saint Gall.

The third part, "Visions and Voices: Allegorizing the Romanesque Church", concentrates on the biblical metaphor of Christ as the door and its realization in Romanesque portal designs incorporating Christ in majesty on the vertical axis. The numerous plates form an essential complement to the detailed analyses of individual tympana, which are accompanied by a wealth of historical detail. In addition to such analyses, Kendall gives attention to questions of meter in the verse inscriptions (many of which were in the form of rhymed or leonine hexameters) and to the status of these textual injunctions, whose effects on the faithful are interpreted in the light of speech act theory. Obvious problems of legibility and comprehension could perhaps have been overcome by "guides" or interpreters. This part ends with a consideration of the distinctive features of Aquitainian facades with their multiple archivolts; due to a production error in the review copy, however, a substantial portion of this section was missing, as was the preceding section, "Moral Allegory: Admonitory and Pax Portals and the Tympanum of Jaca."

The fourth and final part, "Secular Transformations", traces the decline of the Romanesque portal and ascribes it to a number of factors, such as "the development of a new aesthetics of fashion, the utilization of art for political ends, an awareness of the economic advantages of promoting the cult of relics and pilgrimage traffic, the desire for fame and the beginnings of artistic autonomy, and patronage and the exaltation of the individual will." (p. 155) Competition among itinerant artists and the abbeys that vied for pilgrimage traffic on the routes to Compostela, led to a taste for innovation that manifested itself in monumental art; tympana such as that at Conques (itself a pilgrimage destination) sought to promote generosity on the part of visitors by subtle iconographical details such as an elderly Charlemagne accompanied by monks bearing the tangible fruits of his benefactions--a diptych and a reliquary--and, by so doing, asserted the status of the institutions that commissioned the sculpted portals (p. 169). As for the artists who produced the sculptures, they left inscriptions suggesting (or, in some cases, proclaiming) the immortal fame that they believed their work would gain them. Indeed, the analogous interest on the part of patrons in signalling responsibility for the projects they financed contributed, Kendall argues, to the decline of the conception of the church building as sign, promoting instead the notion of the church as symbol of a transcendent reality by pointing up its status as material object and product of human labor. This process is seen to culminate in Abbot Suger's appearance in stone in the tympanum of the central portal of Saint-Denis, above gilded bronze doors bearing verses evoking the passage of the minds of onlookers to the realm of the True Light, where Christ, the true door, awaits them (p. 194). Immanence has given way to transcendence, sign to symbol.

This is a most worthwhile study, not least for its careful transcription of 192 portal inscriptions, for which the work of decipherment involved not just philological acuity but also, it would appear from scattered references in the notes, frequent recourse to binoculars. Students of Romanesque art and those interested in "hard" evidence for the reception of medieval biblical allegories should find in this book much that is of interest.